Interview with Christopher Ross, Personal Envoy of the Secretary-General for Western Sahara

Christoper Ross
25 January 2012 – In January 2009 Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon appointed Christopher Ross as his Personal Envoy for Western Sahara, a territory that has been under dispute for several decades. Fighting erupted there in 1976 between Morocco and the Polisario Front following the Spanish colonial administration’s withdrawal. The violence quickly drove hundreds of thousands of Saharawi refugees to flee across the border and into neighbouring Algeria, where they remain to this day.
Almost two decades later, the violence has subsided but both parties are still at odds despite ongoing UN-mediated talks. While Morocco supports autonomy for the Saharawis, the Polisario Front says the territory’s final status should be decided in an independence referendum.
Mr. Ross, a former United States diplomat with a long and distinguished career, says in the interview that it is high-time to end the Western Sahara conflict and the human tragedy that it has engendered.
UN News Centre: What is the conflict in the Western Sahara all about?
Christopher Ross: Well, as you know the Western Sahara is a former Spanish colony, roughly the size of Great Britain but with a population of just a few hundred thousand. Its legal status has been in dispute since well before the Spanish withdrawal in 1975-76. The parties to this dispute currently are the Kingdom of Morocco and the Polisario Front. Morocco, which has controlled most of Western Sahara since the 1970s, insists that the Western Sahara must become an autonomous part of Morocco on the basis of negotiations with the Polisario and a yes/no referendum.
The Polisario, for its part, argues that the people of Western Sahara must be free to choose their own future through a referendum that includes the option of independence. From 1975 to 1991 there were open hostilities between these two parties, heavy fighting, but in 1991 a ceasefire was implemented as part of a UN-led settlement effort. It should be noted that while this is no longer a fighting war, it is still a tense and dangerous situation. The UN continues to work to encourage a settlement and to improve the well-being of the people whose lives have been tragically affected.

It’s not enough to keep talking on the basis of fixed positions; the solution must reflect a political will and concrete steps to move.

UN News Centre: So, what is the UN doing?

Christopher Ross: Well, since the mid-1980s the UN has taken two distinct approaches to this conflict under the guidance of the Security Council. The first, which lasted until 2004, was based on several settlement plans that were put forward to the parties for their approval. None of these settlement plans worked. They all called for a referendum but the parties were never able to agree who would be eligible to vote. In 2004, a second phase began and this phase continues to this day. This one is based on direct negotiations between the parties. In resolutions every year, the Security Council has called on the parties to achieve, and here I must quote, “a just, lasting, and mutually acceptable political solution, which will provide for the self-determination of the people of Western Sahara.” […] To assist the parties in making progress, the Secretary-General has appointed a Personal Envoy to act as a mediator and facilitator.
So, to summarize, the Security Council now expects the parties themselves to negotiate a political solution with the help of the UN, with the help of the neighbouring States, with the help of the international community and to do so instead of reacting to settlement plans others have drawn up.
In the context of this new phase, in April 2007, the two parties put forward their proposals for a settlement of the conflict to the Security Council, and ever since then these have formed the basis for discussion. I should note that these political efforts to foster a settlement are not the only forms of UN involvement. The UN family has been active on several fronts. It has provided vital support to the thousands of refugees who fled into Algeria to escape the fighting between Morocco and the Polisario in the 1970s.
It has worked to implement confidence-building measures to facilitate the return of the refugees once a settlement is reached. It has also maintained a small peacekeeping force in Western Sahara known as MINURSO, the United Nations Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara. And, finally, it has taken an increased interest in human rights as the parties to the conflict have increasingly accused each other of serious violations of these rights.
UN News Centre: What about the human dimension to this ongoing conflict?
Christopher Ross: Unfortunately, the demands of burning issues around the world and the absence of imminent crisis in Western Sahara have worked to deprive this conflict of the attention it deserves from the international community. But a settlement is, in fact, long overdue not least because of its human dimension. Ensuring a safe return of the Sahrawi refugees in Algeria to their homes under honourable conditions has been my highest objective. I first visited the refugee camps in the 1970s. I returned there beginning in 2009 and I found, much to my dismay, little had changed.
It is unacceptable, in my view, that for 37 years, these refugees have lived in miserable conditions because of a political dispute whose main actors have engaged in endless battles on the ground, at the negotiating table, in international fora. And I think we should never lose site of the people caught in the middle of this conflict.
UN News Centre: Why is this proving so difficult to solve? Why is it taking so long?
Christopher Ross: Essentially, the two sides have maintained positions that are mutually exclusive and neither has been willing to yield one inch. Polisario continues to insist that the final status of Western Sahara must be determined by its people; Morocco continues to insist that the only possible solution is an agreed autonomy under Moroccan sovereignty.
The Security Council has been encouraging the parties to negotiate and has refrained from considering imposing a solution. So, as matters stand, each party is free to reject the proposal of the other as the basis of negotiations. And this is partly a reflection of the fact that each party is convinced that its position is well grounded in history and in international law and enjoys significant domestic and international support. So, they go on maintaining their positions without entering into a genuine negotiating process.
UN News Centre: So, what can you do as the UN mediator to move this process forward?
Christopher Ross: Well, my role as Personal Envoy of the Secretary-General is to promote a settlement by first providing a framework for dialogue and, second, by encouraging genuine negotiations without myself taking a position on the substance. I cannot force a solution on the parties; they themselves must work it out with my help and that of others.
Now, when I first took on these duties, we suspended formal negotiations that had been taking place earlier with large delegations and preferred, instead, to convene informal talks with smaller delegations. This was because the formal negotiations that had gone on had resulted in little more than very strong polemics. We were determined to foster an atmosphere of respect in which much more fluid negotiations and discussions could occur. This effort succeeded but it wasn’t enough to break the impasse. And the two parties simply could not move beyond their two proposals. So, what we have done more recently is try to break down these proposals into individual topics that the parties might be able to discuss without prejudice to whatever the final status might be and they’ve agreed that they could begin by discussing natural resources and demining and then moving on to other subjects. But it really remains to be seen whether this approach will, in fact, lead to movement on the core issue.
UN News Centre: And what will happen if a political solution isn’t found?
Christopher Ross: Well, the fact is that the absence of a solution has imposed growing risks and costs for the parties, the Maghreb region, and for the international community.
The risks for the parties include the possible renewal of military hostilities, the possible outbreak of popular unrest, and the possible recruitment of frustrated young and unemployed Sahrawis into terrorist or criminal groups. The costs include the humanitarian plight of the refugees, increasing questions about human rights, the expense of maintaining significant military forces, and an inability to plan for the use of the natural resources of Western Sahara in a proper way.
Now, for the region and the international community there is the risk of military escalation and there is the possibility of increased terrorist and criminal activity. There, too, there are costs. Among the costs are a failure to achieve the benefits of greater economic integration and the absence of full coordination in responding to threats of terrorism and crime which, in fact, have grown since the collapse of the [Muammar] al-Qadhafi regime and the dispersal of arms and fighters into the Sahel region.
UN News Centre: Do you think a settlement can be reached?
Christopher Ross: Well, there are some people who think that the Western Sahara conflict really is not ripe for settlement on terms acceptable to the parties and to the international community. But it’s clear that a settlement is needed if the Maghreb region is to move forward to meet the challenges of the 21st century. Now, it’s possible that recent developments may encourage the parties to begin a more serious process of negotiation. We’ve had the Arab Spring. We’ve had increasing signs of disaffection among youth. We’ve had recent and forthcoming elections in several places. We’ve had a desire to revive movement toward Maghreb unity. And we’ve seen a growing awareness of the threat of terrorism. So, these and other developments may push the parties to substantive engagement and may also prompt the key regional and international players to become more active in the search for a settlement.
We, for our part, are going to continue our efforts to promote a genuine negotiating process. And the next round of informal talks is scheduled for February at the Greentree Estate in Long Island.
UN News Centre: Is there anything the international community can do to help out?
Christopher Ross: Well, indeed. I think there are things to be said not only to the parties but to the countries in the neighbourhood and to the international community. For the parties, we hope to see a much greater engagement on the core issue of the future status of Western Sahara in the course of the coming year. It’s not enough to keep talking on the basis of fixed positions; the solution must reflect a political will and concrete steps to move. We also hope that the people of Western Sahara, whether they be in the territory or in the refugee camps, will enjoy full human rights, including the freedom to express their views on their future and that the negotiators will take these views into account.
For the States of the Maghreb and the wider international community, we hope that they will see more clearly than ever the benefits for all parties concerned of actively helping to find a mutually acceptable solution.
After 37 years, it’s high-time to end the Western Sahara conflict and the human tragedy that it has engendered.
UN News Center, 25/1/2012